A Story From: Italy
Read Time: ["6 to 10mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
A KING, who was lying on his deathbed, called his only son to come to him.
“Dear son,” he said, “you shall be king after me. Your three sisters have no one but you to protect them. Be kind to them. When it is time for them to marry, do not go about asking all the great princes of the earth to be their husbands. You know that rose tree that grows in the palace garden and flowers all year around? Pluck a rose from it and throw it into the street. Whoever shall pick it up shall have your eldest sister for his wife. So for the second. So for the third.”
It was the last wish of the dying king, and his son could hardly disobey. Therefore when the eldest sister had grown into a beautiful princess, and the court advisers said it was time for her to marry, her brother told her of their father’s command. “Oh, I’d rather not marry at all!” she said. But the court advisers said she must. So one day, the young king plucked the rose, threw it into the street, and told the sentry at the palace door to watch who should pick it up, and send him into the royal presence. Soon there came walking along a fine young count, splendidly dressed, with a jeweled sword by his side, and a manner brave and jolly. He saw the rose, picked it up and stuck it in his velvet cap.
“The king demands to speak with you,” said the sentry, stepping forward. The count, anxious, entered the palace, and bowed himself before the king, who said to him, “You have been chosen as the husband of my eldest sister.” The count bowed even lower, delighted. But the princess grumbled, “I should have married a king, or at least a prince!” Her brother, however, had given his word; and in time she thought to herself, “Well, at least he is young and handsome and brave and gay. I might have fared much worse.” And so she married the count.
A little later it was time for the second princess to marry. She was just as unwilling as her elder sister to take the first one to come along and pick up the rose, but her brother reminded her of their father’s command. So the brother plucked a rose, threw it out in the street, and asked the sentry to watch who should pick it up. By and by, a rich merchant came along, a grave, serious, solid and dignified man. He saw the rose, looked at it as if it were a pity such a pretty thing should be wasted, picked it up, and stopped to place it neatly in the button-hole of his fine cloth doublet.
“The king desires to speak with you,” said the sentry, stepping forward.
“A great honor, indeed,” replied the citizen. “I will attend his majesty without delay.” And he entered the palace and heard what the king had to say to him. “But I am not even a nobleman,” the citizen objected. “The princess might surely marry a much greater man than I.”
“It was her father’s wish,” said the king; and the matter was settled.
The princess grumbled at first. A mere merchant, indeed! “But at least,” she thought, “he is rich and honest and not at all bad-looking. I might have fared worse.” So the second princess married the merchant and went to his new home.
At last came the turn of Julietta, the youngest princess. For her the king did as for the others. He plucked the rose, threw it into the street, and told the sentry to watch who should pick it up, and send him in. Now, who should come by but a poor lame water-carrier! Such an ugly, dirty little man! He saw the rose, picked it up, and put it to his lips.
The sentry stepped forward. He said to the water-carrier, “The king desires to speak with you.”
The water-carrier sadly looked at his tattered clothes and ragged sandals. To be seen before the the king in such rags! But when the king commands . . . He slunk up the marble steps and entered the palace.
“You picked up the rose?” said the king, eyeing him with dismay.
“Yes, sire! But if you please, sire! I meant no harm by it.”
“Then you must marry my youngest sister, Julietta.”
“What? Your majesty is making a mockery of me.”
“Not at all! Not at all!” And the beggar was told of the dead king’s command.
“But I am miserably poor, as you see — and my leg is lame — and I am ugly! Such a match is impossible!”
“I wish it were!” sighed the king. “But this is the way it must be.”
“A poor wretch who can scarcely feed her!” cried the poor man. Then he sighed. “Well, if it must be, then please do not send any dowry with her. It would only make it worse for her to have fine things.”
The grief of the poor young princess was heartrending. Her brother wept too, and it was a miserable wedding. But it couldn’t be helped. So Julietta went away with her water-carrier to his shabby hut on the hill. On the way all the people who saw them cried, “Look! there goes the princess with that Rags-and-Tatters!” Home she went to the miserable place, to live there with her new husband, Rags-and-Tatters, and his old crone of a mother.
“This is no place for such fine clothes,” said the old woman. She gave Julietta a rough dress to wear, and wooden shoes, and made her scour and wash and bake and darn, and tend her husband’s lame leg. There was only the coarsest food to eat — and little enough of that.
Poor Julietta wept and wept, and could not be comforted. Rags-and-Tatters, though he did not want so fine a wife, was full of pity for her. But what could he do? The only time she had any joy was when she was asleep. Then she dreamed beautiful dreams. One night she dreamt she was in a grand palace, warm and light and spacious. She wore lovely clothes and jewels in her hair; and the tables were spread with delicious things to eat. She sat down at the table with friends dressed as beautifully as herself, and everyone was having a fine time. When she woke up she told her husband all about it. But Rags-and-Tatters shook his head and said, “A dream is but a dream, my wife. Think no more of it.”
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” said the old woman to Julietta. “It’s time to get up and kindle the fire.”
Some weeks later she dreamt the same dream again. Of course, she told her husband about it in the morning.
“It’s best you forgot these dreams,” he said. “It only makes it harder for you here.”
“Get used to the real world, girl,” snapped the old woman. “There’s the wash tub. Get started.”
That very night, Julietta was back in the beautiful palace in her dreams, with servants to wait on her, and jeweled clothes to wear. Again the banquet was rich and splendid, the flowers were rare and fragrant, the music soft and pleasant. But as they were rising from the table someone looked up at the golden ceiling. There in the hole a little man was gazing downward. “Look! look!” cried a man at the table. “There is Rags-and-Tatters!” Just then, in the twinkling of an eye the dream vanished, and the princess was sitting up in her bed by the hearth in the hut on the hill, clad in her old sleeping frock.
She moaned to her husband over all she had lost and left behind. In his heart he really felt very sorry for her. “What’s done is done,” he said softly. “We must try to make the best of it.”
For weeks and weeks she wept every day. Then one night, she dreamt once more of the beautiful palace. As soon as Rags-and-Tatters was recognized and his name was called out, the entire dream disappeared again. The next night, however, she was back in the lovely palace again, richly clad, and with servants to wait on her. The banquet was more splendid than ever. But this time, before they sat down, the Princess Julietta spoke to her assembled guests.
“Make merry, my friends,” she said. “Only one thing is forbidden. Let none of you breathe the name,” — and then she whispered — “of Rags-and-Tatters!”
They all sat down, ate, drank and made merry, and charming music sounded all about them the while. Then one of the company looked up at the hole in the golden roof. There again, the little man was gazing down on them all. It was just on the tip of his tongue to cry out, “Rags-and-Tatters!” but he caught himself just in time. The princess herself looked up and saw the figure in the hole in the roof. A sudden ray of fondness lit up her heart.
“Poor man!” she said softly to herself. “What a good fellow he is, and how I sadden him with my complaints! I wish Rags & Tatters were down here with us in the midst of it all, and enjoying it too!”
And then — did the lights, the music, the flowers and the guests, the palace and everything, disappear as before? Not at all! At the end of the banquet hall appeared two thrones of gold. On one of them sat a fair young prince, clad in velvet and jewels. His hair shone like the sun, and his eyes were of hyacinth blue, and his smile gladdened the heart of everyone. While they stood in amazement, he rose and said, “Welcome, my guests! My wife has entertained you while I have been away. You will not be less merry, I hope, now that I have come home!” And he drew the Princess Julietta forward, and placed her on the throne by his side. Then they danced and sang and were joyous, till the stars faded and daylight streamed through the windows of the hall.
For Rags-and-Tatters was not Rags-and-Tatters at all, but Prince Florio, the son of the king of Portugal! A wicked enchantress had cast a spell on the young prince because his father, the king of Portugal, had banished her from his land. The spell the enchantress had cast had reduced the Prince to a hideous appearance, clothed only by old and dirty rags, and the spell was to last until a princess loved him enough to desire his humble company even while she reveled in finery and elegance. Now Julietta had broken the spell when she longed for him in the midst of her splendor, with his rags and tatters and all.
And what of his old mother? Why, she was not his real mother at all, but the wicked enchantress herself. Night after night, the crone had planted dreams in the princess of finery and lost glory. The following day, she delighted in mocking the prince when it was obvious that the princess had thought nothing of the prince during her dreams; for if she had, of course the spell would have been broken by morning.
Prince Florio and Princess Julietta went home in triumph to Portugal, where they were married, lived happily and where their love only deepened as the years went by.
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This story, "Rags-and-Tatters," is from a story of the same name in The Italian Fairy Book by Anne MacDonell (Frederick A. Stokes Company: New York, 1911), pp. 232-241.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.